When Washington Monthly blogger Kevin Drum and National Review Corner blogger Ramesh Ponnuru went at it over stem cells recently, I was quite startled by something. I’m quite used to creationists misleadingly quoting scientists out of context, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen someone quote themselves out of context. Let me explain.
Drum sees Ramesh as snidely intimating that defenders of embryonic research are less than sincere. Ramesh begs to differ. Here’s the offending paragraph from Ramesh that started everything off:
Yuval is right: It’s not a time for gloating. For one thing, we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves in estimating the political impact of this breakthrough: We should wait at least a few days to see how the advocates of embryo-destructive stem-cell research react before concluding that the battle is over. (In the past, they have done what they could to minimize the potential of non-lethal methods of deriving pluripotent stem cells.)
And here is how Ramesh characterizes what he said above:
My point was that the political debate over whether the federal government should fund certain forms of embryo-destructive research or allow certain other forms of it would not be over under certain conditions. If, for example, these people believe that embryo-destructive research (or certain forms of it) still have advantages that the new research methods don’t have, or that it is still important to encourage research of all types, then the debate isn’t over, although it will change.
Go back to my original 4:41 p.m. post: I said that in the past proponents of embryo-destructive stem-cell research had “minimized the potential of non-lethal methods of deriving pluripotent stem cells”; that’s exactly what I’m saying they might still do.
So Ramesh insists that all he meant was that pro-ESCR people might have further arguments for ESCR, and only an illiterate would think that he ever hinted at anyones insincerity. But notice what he cut out from his self-quotation: the “In the past, they have done what they could to minimize” part. The part of his paragraph which just so happens to most strongly imply that he thinks pro-ESCR folks have actively tried to spin or avoid the issue.
That’s a truly masterful bit of rhetorical revisionism: so slick that I wonder if it was even a conscious act on Ramesh’s part.
But then, one should never credit the author of a book entitled The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life with too much of a gift for subtlety and evenhandedness.
Update: I think I’m being a bit charitable by saying that Ramesh “responded” to my post, by which I mean that he links to it, but offers only another re-interpretive sidetrack in defense of himself (at least this time he actually mentions the key phrase, even if he basically still ignores any discussion of its meaning). Unfortunately, “done what they could” is simply not a description particularly consistent with the idea that pro-ESCR folks were making a “simple error” or otherwise mistaken. “Done what they could to minimize” implies active, thoughtful subterfuge and spin. Perhaps Ramesh sincerely misspoke, but he certainly doesn’t seem inclined to consider even that possibility, does he?
What’s truly bizarre here is that Ramesh has had little hesitation asserting in various other places that defenders of ESCR, including Kevin Drum specifically! are playing games of dishonest spin and hiding the truth about adult stem cells. Why so shy about having the accusation highlighted in this case?
Extra Double Update: Yet another Corner blogger, David Freddoso, weighs in. Let me get this straight: he’s defending the integrity of Ponnuru by arguing that Ponnuru didn’t say what it really, really sounds like he said… but that what he didn’t say is totally a good point that he’s entitled to make. I may not have the necessary “reading skills” here, so I’m just asking for clarification to make sure I’m getting it.
To make myself clear, I don’t think Freddoso is off-base at all in highlighting the deceptive language and sketchy science that some embryonic stem cell research advocates and politicians have used. Heck, I just posted about same sort of thing going on with whether or not the pill kills. I was just in this case amazed to see Ponnuru take such elaborate offense that anyone would read his comment in a way utterly consistent with both his literal words and many previous opinions on his opponents’ integrity, as well as noting with amusement his choice of what words to leave out in his interpretive defense.
And of course, I don’t agree that the use of deception is weighted to one side. For instance, a certain Ramesh Ponnuru has long and unapologetically played the exact same sort of spin game with the difference between what “cloning” technically encompasses, and what it implies to the general public (i.e. The Island and The Boys From Brazil). And, of course, I think the entire “embryos are just human beings at a certain stage in their life” argument is just one long exercise in equivocation.
But that’s an argument for another day… how’s this Friday shaping up for ya, guys?